Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Five


The Battle of Nicopolis

Between 1385 and 1396, the Ottomans triumph

JOHN V OF CONSTANTINOPLE had kept his throne, but at the expense of his freedom; he was now a vassal of the Ottoman sultan Murad, and his son Manuel lived as a hostage at the Ottoman court to guarantee the emperor’s obedience. Murad was simply following long-established Ottoman policy: conquest by assimilation, forcing the kings around him into submissive vassalage, and then bending them to his will.1

Campaign after campaign followed. Now the Ottomans had moved past Byzantium, into Serbia and Bulgaria. Serbia, completely disorganized, lost its entire east; the city of Sofia fell in 1385, Nis in the following year. Thessalonica surrendered in 1387. Bulgaria, mounting a last-ditch rebellion against the sultan’s dominance, was overrun with Turkish troops, the Bulgarian king trapped and compelled to swear loyalty.2

In the early summer of 1389, the Turkish flood finally overwhelmed Serbia. The last Serbian defender, a nobleman named Lazar who had established himself as a local ruler on the Morava river, had rallied the competing Serbian leaders behind him for a last defense, but they were badly outnumbered, divided on strategy; when the Turkish troops met them at Kosovo on June 15, thousands of Serbian soldiers were slaughtered. Lazar himself was taken captive and immediately beheaded. Serbia now belonged to the Turks; Lazar’s son was spared when he agreed to swear loyalty, pay tribute, and fight for the Turks.

The one bright spot in a dark and submerged landscape seemed to be the death of Murad, who had fallen at the Battle of Kosovo in unclear circumstances: perhaps killed in the fighting, possibly murdered by treachery. But this too turned out to be to the Ottomans’ advantage. The Turkish sultanate now fell to Murad’s son Bayezid: Yildirim, “the Thunderbolt.” At once, Bayezid ordered his favorite brother and loyal commander Yakub strangled with a bowstring. Yakub had fought bravely at Kosovo, but he might one day challenge the new sultan’s might, and Bayezid would not even allow this possibility to exist.3

Bayezid had evolved a new policy. Rather than allowing the vassal rulers under his control to continue on, he planned to aggressively drive them out. New campaigns began in Bulgaria and in the other vassal territories of the Ottoman empire, with Bayezid determined to replace vassal kings with slave governors who were entirely devoted to him, personally loyal. For himself, he adopted a new title: the Sultan of Rum. By this he did not simply mean to claim the old Turkish sultanate in Asia Minor as his own; he meant that he intended to be the sultan of the second Rome, Constantinople itself.4

In 1390, he forced Manuel to take part in the siege of Philadelphia, the last Greek holdout in the Turkish lands of Asia Minor. The heir to the Byzantine throne was the first over the walls when the last Byzantine outpost surrendered to the Turks. As the fifteenth-century Greek chronicler Chalkokondyles tartly noted, it was a rare distinction.5

Alarmed by Bayezid’s aggression, John V of Constantinople ordered the gates of the city reinforced, stripping marble from the dilapidated churches around the city to do so. This did not please Bayezid, who now flexed his muscle and demanded that the reinforcements be pulled down, the Golden Gate of the city demolished and thrown open. He threatened to blind Manuel, still at the sultan’s court, if the emperor did not comply.

John V agreed. But this was the final blow to his hopes and his pride. He retreated to his own apartments and took to his bed, lying motionless and without food until he died in February of 1391. He was fifty-eight.6

Hearing of his father’s death, Manuel escaped from the sultan’s territory and made his way back to Constantinople. Bayezid was later heard to say that he wished he had murdered his hostage while he had the chance.* But now that the new emperor was in possession of the city, he had to content himself with a message: “Close the gates of the city and reign within it, but all that lies outside belongs to me.”7

For a time, Manuel—forty years old, the veteran of countless military campaigns, a scholar by nature and a soldier by necessity—pretended that the old glory of Constantinople still survived. Early in 1392, he married the Serbian princess Helena in an anachronistic ceremony that trumpeted the empire’s greatness. The city was dressed in silks; parades and feasts led up to an all-night celebration of the Eucharist, after which the newlyweds greeted the gathered court from their golden thrones, crowned and jeweled.

The real crown jewels were actually still in Venice, held as surety for the unpaid debt. Before they took their leave, the Venetian guests reminded the emperor that he still owed them money.

All that was left of the great eastern empire now lay within the walls of Constantinople. Outside belonged to the Turks, and Bayezid’s eyes were fixed on entire victory, the fall of every western throne within his grasp. “After the land has been cleared of thorns,” he told his court, “my sons may dance in the Christian land without fearing to scratch their feet.”8

IN 1394, BAYEZID I, from whose court Manuel II had escaped, laid siege to Constantinople. His army burned everything outside the city walls and surrounded Constantinople by land. The city survived only because the Turks were not yet able to blockade it by sea; their fleet was rudimentary, their skills on the water poor, and Constantinople was for a time able to resupply itself by ship. But the fields and woods outside the city were inaccessible. Inside, the people were forced to grow vegetables in their tiny city plots, to pull down outbuildings and cottages so that there was enough firewood to bake bread.9

Manuel needed help from the outside. Aid finally came from Sigismund of Hungary, ruling in the place of his young wife. With Bulgaria succumbing to Turkish attack and Serbia already gone, he could see his own doom on the horizon. Sigismund begged for still one more crusade, hoping that the kings of the Christian West would respond.


85.1 Ottoman Victories

None of them did, although the Avignon pope (the “antipope,” to the Romans) promised indulgences. Only a few English soldiers arrived, none of them under the command of royalty. Charles VI of France was in no shape to go on crusade; his uncle the Duke of Burgundy promised to attend in his place, but backed out at the last minute and sent his son instead. Venice, hoping to preserve its right to trade with the east through the Black Sea, sent troops. The military order of the Knights Hospitaller provided a few more.10

By the end of September 1396, the crusading force that had gathered in Hungary was at its strongest—an attenuated, unenthusiastic crew, arguing about whether the coming struggle with the Turks should be a defensive one (waiting until Bayezid came to them) or an attack. In the end, they all advanced to Nicopolis: they had become a formidable force only because Sigismund himself had reinforced their ranks with sixty thousand Hungarians.

There, on September 25, Bayezid crushed them.

He drew the French knights, who were anxious to claim credit for the first attack, out with a small advance force, hiding the bulk of his army behind a nearby hill. The French contingent galloped impressively out against the small visible band of Turks; they were at once surrounded and wiped out. The Turkish army then charged down against the remaining Crusaders. Taken by surprise, they were slaughtered in droves. The Crusader camp outside Nicopolis was surrounded, all of the goods and tents falling into Turkish hands.11

Sigismund of Hungary and the Master of the Knights Hospitaller escaped, leaving behind thousands of captured soldiers; the son of the Duke of Burgundy was among them. The day after the battle, Bayezid ordered his men to bring out all of their prisoners. According to Islamic custom, the prisoners belonged to their captors, although Bayezid could claim one-fifth of the battle spoils for himself. But the sultan had a different ending in mind. He told one of the French captives, a Burgundian who had once fought for the Ottomans as a mercenary and spoke some Turkish, to identify twenty of the richest prisoners to be held for ransom. The man did so; the young heir to Burgundy was among them.

Then Bayezid ordered the rest decapitated.

This was against both Christian and Islamic practice, but his men obediently began to carry out the command. One of the survivors, the sixteen-year-old German foot soldier Johann Schiltberger, was spared because of his youth: “None under twenty years of age were killed,” he notes. And then he adds,

Then I saw lord Hannsen Greif, who was a noble of Bavaria, and four others bound with the same cord. When they saw the great revenge which was taking place, he cried with a loud voice and consoled the cavalry and infantry who were standing there to die. Stand firm, he said, when our blood this day is spilled for the Christian Faith we by God’s help shall become the children of heaven. When he said this he knelt and was beheaded together with his companions.12

Eventually, the slaughter stopped. Bayezid’s soldiers, anxious to please their master, were nevertheless sickened by the task. Eyewitnesses disagreed on the total number of men killed, with reports ranging from a few hundred into the thousands. No matter the total, the result was the same. Constantinople still lay under siege, the Christians had retreated, and Bayezid’s path to the west remained open.

Death on crusade: it was a martyr’s death, and Hannsen Greif’s last moments were sweetened by the pure belief that he would go directly into the presence of God. But Bayezid was not fighting a holy war. He was conquering an empire, and sacred rules of just war were the last things on his mind.


*Apparently the sultan reconsidered this threat; three months after Manuel’s enthronement, he summoned Manuel to his court, and the new emperor arrived in safety. Manuel had decided to stave off Bayezid’s inevitable attack on Constantinople itself by demonstrating his loyalty, and he spent seven months assisting Bayezid’s next military campaign before returning to the city in January 1392. After this, he remained in Constantinople, and Bayezid’s strategy shifted to out-and-out conquest.

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